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Horror scenes in a church: Santo Stefano Rotondo

by | Hidden gems of Rome | 0 comments

Santo Stefano Rotondo, a hidden gem a few steps away from the Colosseum

Watch the vlog on the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, a few steps away from the Colosseum!

Hello Rome-lovers! Today I am going to take you to a place off the usual tourists’ path: the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo (St Stephen in the Round). This is one of the most ancient and unusual churches of Rome.

Where is the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo?

We are located on the Celio hill, in close proximity to the Colosseum. In fact, you can actually walk here from the Colosseum, taking up the via Claudia and keeping this road until you find these spectacular ruins of the Neronian aqueduct.

Santo Stefano Rotondo
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When you see the ancient ruin of the Nero aqueduct, turn left

From here you will have to turn left and take the via di Santo Stefano Rotondo, which gives you a hint of what we are going to be shortly 😊

It’s a church, which was not so hard to guess, considering that in Rome there are over 900 churches! (In fact it’s the city with most churches in the world).

After few meters you’ll find on your right side the entrance of the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, which translates in English in St. Stephen in the Round. This church was built in the 5th century AD, so it’s one of the most ancient churches in Rome, and the most ancient church in Rome with a circular plan; hence the name St. Stephen in the Round.

Santo Stefano Rotondo
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At the entrance of the Church of Santo Stefano Rotondo (St Stephen in the Round)

Santo Stefano Rotondo is the most ancient church in Rome with a circular plan!

From outside it looks more or less as an ordinary church (a portico with columns), but its peculiarity is inside. Let’s go and have a look!

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The entrance of Santo Stefano Rotondo

As we enter, the atmosphere is cozy, intimate, peaceful. That is why this is one of the most requested churches for weddings! We can notice the central nave encircled by columns, with the altar in the center and the seats around it.

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The interior of Santo Stefano Rotondo

Something you would never expect to find inside a church..

Encircling the central nave the main walls, decorated with a series of 34 frescos.

But as we get closer to those frescoes, the reassuring and comforting feeling we had at the beginning fades away all of a sudden. These frescoes depict 34 scenes of martyrdom, which we have seen many times in many churches. But these scenes are full of details and descriptions. They are so brutal that they are kind of splatter, almost a horror movie.

They describe the martyrdom of the first Christians, together with the ancient Roman emperor that ordered it.

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The frescoes on the walls of Santo Stefano Rotondo

Few examples here…


The various tortures and assassinations are marked with letters and explained in the description below the fresco.
The fresco on the left shows what happened under the emperor Nero.

A, martyrdom of some Christians being bitten by dogs;

B (top right) some Christians sentenced to be hanged;

C (top left) more Christians sentenced to be beheaded.

In the second fresco, we are under the reign of Domitian. The Romans put St John into a cauldron with boiling oil.
I won’t show you any more of these images, as some may hurt someone’s sensitivity. And also because I want to leave you some of these to see for yourselves next time you’re in Rome!

Why the choice of such shocking images in a church?


Firstly, Saint Stephen was the first martyr of Christianity, so it makes sense that his church features those scenes. The paintings are from the 1500s and they had a precise function. They had to raise the awareness into the Jesuit missionaries, who were about to sail to South America, of the dangers of their job. It was a sort of waiver, warning them that they could have suffered tortures and being killed. Therefore, it was a kind of training for seminarists and also for worshipers, as if to say: beware, those indigenous people in south America can be dangerous, so keep your eyes open and watch out!

This is one of the most requested churches of Rome for weddings!


Anyway, isn’t it weird that this is one of the most requested churches in Rome for weddings? Some say these frescoes continue to be a warning for future spouses, making them aware of the dangers of marriage and all the tortures they might go through!


All kidding aside, probably spouses and guests won’t even notice the frescoes, because as you enter, this church embraces you in a round big hug and keeps your attention elsewhere.


I hope you like this little tour of St Stephen in the Round and that inspired you to come and visit this hidden little wonder next time you’re in Rome.


Remember we also do LIVE virtual tours, and you can book them here or send us a request for tailor-made live virtual experiences.


If you liked this post please comment and share your thoughts below. I want to know what you think about this church and if you’ve been here already.


Thanks for reading and see you soon! Ciao! 🙂

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